6 Surprising Facts About Jim Henson
If there’s anyone to thank for your early childhood television obsessions—specifically of the puppet variety—it’s Jim Henson. The famed puppeteer and artist created the Muppets, including Miss Piggy, Kermit the Frog, and Sesame Street's original fuzzy residents like Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch. Over the course of his long career, Henson—who was born on September 24, 1936 in Greenville, Mississippi—directed feature films, including the cult favorite Labyrinth, and established The Jim Henson Company. But Henson's life wasn’t all about teaching kids to count or how to sing the “Rainbow Connection." Read on for more facts about this pop culture icon.
1. Jim Henson met his wife in puppetry class.
In 1954, when he was a college freshman at the University of Maryland, Henson met Jane Nebel in a puppetry course. Then teenagers, the two started working together on various projects for school, and later fell in love. They were married in May of 1959, and their first home included a puppetry workshop. The couple had five children, some of whom have followed in their famous father's footsteps (their daughter Lisa Henson is CEO and president of The Jim Henson Company). Though they separated later in life, they remained legally married until Jim's death on May 16, 1990.
2. Jim Henson’s original Kermit the Frog was made from old coats and ping pong balls.
Kermit the Frog first appeared in Henson’s 1955 television show Sam and Friends, which won the artist his very first Emmy. The short, late-night puppet show, created by Henson and friends at the University of Maryland, featured a few characters who would later become Muppets, including Kermit—a frog reportedly made out of some coats from Henson’s mother and a couple of ping pong balls. The puppeteer called the frog “an alter ego” of sorts, saying that he was “a little snarkier than I am.” Kermit would later appear on Sesame Street when the show premiered in 1969.
3. Jim Henson dreamed of opening a nightclub.
In the late 1960s, Henson got the idea for a kind of immersive experience nightclub, which he dubbed Cyclia. As described by Brian Jay Jones in Jim Henson: The Biography, Cyclia was supposed to have featured images and experimental films projected onto the walls and ceilings, timed with a music playlist to create a holistic experience bringing together film, dance, and music. Henson never got the club off the ground, but he did film a lot of visuals intended for the club, some of which The Jim Henson Company has since released on YouTube (like the one above).
4. Jim Henson made many experimental films—some of which you can watch right now.
Over the course of his career, Henson made many experimental films, including 1965’s Time Piece, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short. Not only did Henson write and direct the film, he also starred in it, playing the role of “Man.” (Fun fact: Famed puppeteer Frank Oz, who played Yoda in Star Wars and Miss Piggy in The Muppets, among others, also appeared in the short as “Messenger boy.”)
Musing on his career in the 1960s, Henson said that he saw his work as separated into two categories: “One was accepted by the audience and was successful, and that was Muppets. The other [experimental films] was something I was very interested in and enjoyed, [but] ... didn’t have that commercial success.”
5. Jim Henson tricked his son into voicing Hoggle in Labyrinth.
One of Henson’s sons, Brian Henson, followed his father’s path and became a performer and puppeteer. Though he would frequently help out in his father’s various productions, it wasn’t until 1986's Labyrinth that Brian would join his dad full-time on the set as a puppeteer coordinator. During filming, he read the lines of Hoggle as he operated the puppet behind the camera, all the while believing his father would re-record the lines with another actor in post-production. “My dad was always going to replace my voice,” Brian told SyFy. “And then in the end he goes, ‘You know, let’s keep it.’ And I was like, ‘Come on Dad, that’s hardly an English accent.’ And he said, ‘No. It’s just so weird. It’s kind of good.’”
6. Jim Henson wrote letters to his family in the event of his death four years before he passed away.
In 1986, despite being in seemingly good health, Henson decided to write two letters to be opened in the event of his death—one for his children, and the other for his family and friends. To his children, he promised to watch over them if he could, and left them with one last piece of fatherly advice: "Please watch out for each other and love and forgive everybody. It’s a good life, enjoy it."
A version of this story ran in 2020; it has been updated for 2021.